My deleted sentences are like the children I never had.
Anyone with an appreciation of the sanctity of the written word can perhaps relate to my sentiment and the pain of having to write something and then being forced to give it a quiet burial, like it never existed. I tend to take this personally. I look back, longingly, at all the sentences I had to delete, and the files I had to erase, because of their incendiary potential, and it gives me a heartache. I sense their presence, in my mind and my Recycle Bin, the haunting vistas of a “life” I snuffed out for no fault of its own. And I wonder if my life would have been different had I not done so.
My deleted sentences are the remnants of a life I never lived.
Consider: I have deleted more sentences than I have published, suppressed more thoughts than I have indulged, killed more ideas than I have nurtured, policed myself more times than I can count. The words that I have deleted define me more than the words that I have put on display, for your reading, viewing, tantalising pleasure. For me, it’s a daily compromise. It’s a career-spanning compromise. It’s the kind of compromise, I’m told, that makes the difference between life outside the prison and life inside. In the language of the learned, this balancing act goes by the name of “self-censorship”—a four-syllable punch to the gut of every writer, creative or non-creative, who takes their profession seriously.
My deleted sentences, as the law would tell you, are the wrong kind of sentences.
In a country where the “politically correct” is a synonym for the “politically tolerable”, my deleted sentences are the price I pay for having any opinion at all. So I “adjust”. I sugar-coat. Both my thoughts and the truths. No ad-libbing, I remind myself. No unchecked vituperation. So as I write, I try to produce the right kind of sentences. And certain ministers that everyone knows to be corrupt become nondescript. Certain statements that everyone knows to be hollow become gospel. Certain crimes that everyone sees happening around—and suffers from on a daily basis—turn into “alleged crimes” or “propaganda”. Certain offences against the truth become slightly less offensive. Certain gaffes and goofs are de-emphasised.
I take care not to be specific. I take care not to name names. I dare not name names, for if the wrong kind of sentences comes out, can the correcting kind of sentences (punishment) be far behind?
My deleted sentences, in that sense, are a result of constant self-correction, of unflattering adjectives and portrayals being either chopped off or replaced with ones that are ambiguous and that, my editors hope, would ruffle no feathers, none that matter anyway.
In other words, my deleted words and sentences are an exercise in thesaurus manoeuvring.
Think for a moment what the pundits say about words being both poisons and medicines, depending on how you use them and against whom. It’s a slippery slope really. Since I cannot use words that “kill” nor cannot, in my right mind, use words that “heal”, with undeserved compliments, I have to take middle of the road. It’s not difficult sometimes. All I have to do is press “Ctrl + F” on my keyboard after I have finished writing a piece, and replace emphatic, incendiary adjectives like “dictatorial”, “totalitarian” and “Orwellian” with less suggestive ones. Meanwhile, the “government” becomes “the system”. “Chhatra League” becomes “the student wing of the ruling party”. The “military” becomes something else. BNP becomes more than BNP. Names are replaced by titles, facts deleted, if not altered, and headings robbed of their “spark”.
The more challenging task, when it comes to writing on politics and high-level corruption, is to refashion entire sentences and even paragraphs to make them seem benignly analytical but critical, if you must be, only to the extent that it doesn’t upset the guardians of the status quo. But in the absence of a state-approved manual on how to sterilise critical pieces, even our most astute editorial policy at times fails to predict reactions.
My deleted sentences, thus, represent the shifting ground beneath a media industry where the written word is looked at with more distrust than ever before.
Hence all the legal and moral policing, not to mention the countless invisible barriers that are placed before the media managers. You see the latter burning the midnight oil trying to come up with ideas to scrape through this existential threat. But for the individual writer, there is a learning curve in this job. You stay long enough in the profession and it becomes less of a grunt work for you than it used to be. You get used to writing a certain way. You auto-correct yourself as you go along, and think less and less of warnings like that of Irish novelist John Banville—that in a climate of fear and censorship, “the populace becomes so cowed that it does the state’s work for it voluntarily”—because prolonged exposure to a reprogramming regime can alter the very way your thought process works.
The result? “I obey, therefore I am” becomes your default setting.
My deleted sentences—a shushed community of unhappy words—are thus the first casualty of my ambition to write and live on. They are the forgotten relics of my first step of independence into the thinking world… my first brush with a revolutionary zeal born only to be thrown into the bin of irrelevance…
My deleted sentences, in the end, are a painful reminder of all the times that I had to swallow my pride, toe the line drawn either by the government or by my employers oh-so afraid of consequences, and put an end to the illusion of control over my own life.
The history of my deleted sentences is truly the history of my unmet potential, if any, both as a lay writer and as a person. All that I could have been but couldn’t.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at
The Daily Star. Email: email@example.com